Why do we still use the term “sub-Saharan Africa”?

Mark Zuckerberg holds a QA in Lagos.
Mark Zuckerberg holds a QA in Lagos.
Image: Facebook
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg began his first visit to Nigeria on Aug. 30—a country of 182 million people whose GDP quadrupled between 2005 and 2015. But many Western headlines, including one by CNN, highlighted not that he was visiting Nigeria, but “sub-Saharan Africa.”

One tweet summed up some Nigerians’ feelings at being swept into this broad group during their moment in the spotlight:

But it’s not just CNN. A quick google shows the AP, Reuters, The New York Times and our good selves at Quartz regularly use “sub-Saharan Africa,” a term as confusing as it is historically loaded.

The UN Development Program lists 46 of Africa’s 54 countries as “sub-Saharan,” excluding Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan and Tunisia. This doesn’t make geographical sense—four countries included are on the Sahara, while Eritrea is deemed “sub-Saharan” but its southern neighbor Djibouti isn’t.

The World Bank muddies the waters further, adding Sudan and Somalia to total 48 countries under the label.

By contrast, the African Union barely uses the term, instead referring to regional organizations like the East African Community and the Economic Community of West African States as its “building blocks”.

“‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ is such an enormous catchphrase that it’s almost useless,” says Rosalind Morris, an African Studies professor at Columbia University. “Nigeria as a state doesn’t look anything like Kenya as a state, doesn’t look anything like Botswana.”

So, why use this vague term that few can agree on and is geographically inaccurate? And where does it come from?

The term spread as a replacement for the racially-tinged phrases “Tropical Africa” and “Black Africa” that were used until around the 1950s, says Columbia University anthropologist Brian Larkin.

The dividing line itself also has some troubling origins in what Larkin calls “racist” colonial theories that thought northern Africa more culturally developed.

“It divides Africa according to white ideas of race, making North Africans white enough to be considered for their glories, but not really white enough,” Tatenda Chinondidyachii Mashanda, a politics and international affairs scholar at Wake Forest University, wrote earlier this year for The African Exponent. ”[It] is a way of saying ‘Black Africa’ and talking about black Africans without sounding overtly racist.”

One US diaspora group found the phrase so “disparaging and contemptuous” it launched a 2010 petition to abolish it—but found scant success.

With the World Bank and others employing it to sort data about a region lacking in reliable statistics, journalists have depended on this grouping to try to make sense of demographic and economic trends, propagating it even further.

African governments and even academics also have to fall into line, since aid organizations use it to assign funds, says Morris.

“People are often forced into unhappy or at least sometimes awkward complicity with those systems of naming, in order to just get funding,” Morris said.

That’s not to say grouping nations by shared colonial history isn’t analytically helpful—their similar institutions, languages and close relations make for good comparisons. But “sub-Sahara” is too vast to shed light on those traits and can strengthen an often imagined divide between northern Arab countries and the rest of Africa, Larkin says.

So, maybe it’s time for some nuance around a subject where debate is so reductive that Yale anthropology professor Louisa Lombard says “academics are used to people speaking about Africa as one country.”

What’s wrong with more accurate geographic markers, like East, West, Central and Southern Africa? Or even just calling Nigeria, the world’s seventh biggest country, by its own name?